Father Bill: Reunited from our interview 14 years ago.
I interviewed Father Bill Amann when he celebrated his 77th birthday on a boat headed to Antarctica.
It was one of many world journeys he took with his nephew, Christopher, and marked a momentous milestone.
With that trip, Bill had traveled to all seven continents. They had arrived in Antarctica in darkness, and Bill was astounded by the majesty and glory of the world before him.
That was 2005. I’ve thought about Bill in the 14 years since I published his story in the newspaper. Last week, Christopher reunited us at the Catholic rectory where Bill now lives. He’s 91.
Bill met me in the living room, with two folders filled with Antarctica memories and Christopher’s red expedition parka from the trip. It was just one of Bill’s many adventures in life.
He canoed the entire 500-mile Erie Canal from Buffalo to Albany — and all the side waterways and creeks, many with Christopher. He went to Hawaii. Venezuela. For many years, Bill went with Christopher’s’ father. When Christopher’s father passed away before their trip to Europe, Christopher took his place. And they kept going.
“He has become like a son to me,” I remember Bill told me in 2005.
What a bond they created during their explorations. Sitting in the rectory, I recognize it easily. Christopher helps Uncle Bill on dates from 15 years ago or this year that are foggy; they laugh over memories of big and small moments around the world, and nearby.
That time they visited Hohenems, Austria, where Bill’s father was born. Crazy Werner and his brother Hans invited Bill to his family’s cabin halfway up a skiing mountain. They were to ski down — except there were only two pairs and three people. No problem! Bill took one and Werner and Hans skied down together. On a single pair!
“I guess they were good,” says Christopher, and we all laugh.
The mayor had greeted them and took them on a tour they arrived in Hohenems. The town is full of Amanns, so it was special they came.
Bill’s most recent trip was with another priest, who wanted to go to Germany and see his own ancestors’land. Bill joined him, and then they went to Hohenems a final time.
He informs me this was also his last trip. He says he’s in the AAA now — age-appropriate ailments. We laugh that his started at age 91 and Christopher and I are already there. He can't walk now without a walker, and takes a car the few hundred feet to the church to deliver Mass and hear confession. But he has his memories of all of the amazing people he's met and places he's seen. He’s thankful for them all.
"My next trip will be up there," he says, pointing to the sky. "Heaven."
We talk about the beauty of travel. I tell him how it makes the everyday feel new to me again. How often I can take these small moments for granted so easily at home. How travel makes me know I don't know much at all, and the world is big and we are small in the best possible way.
For him, Bill says, the gift of traveling, was “to be amazed at the world God made.” Mountains. Rivers. The landscapes. The people in it, so different and yet so welcoming and so interesting.
I think about his final trip to Hohenems and tell him my dad and I went to Germany not long ago to see where his ancestors came from. He did tons of research and traced our relatives to his great, great grandfather near Burg. I found real-life relatives! We visited them! We are still friends!
My father, I said, found a piece of himself that I did not anticipate would mean so much to me. We did not waste the time together, and it changed our relationship for the better. We became friends. All of the trips wth my mother and dad, I am glad we had that time, like he and Christopher, I said.
What is right next to us and closest is also the most important.
He gave me a stuffed penguin, the size of my fist with little feet and eyes staring wide.
"I got it for you there," he said, smiling, though could not have known this gift would come.
He had also kept the newspaper story I ran about their milestone journey, neatly folded in the envelopes of mementos.
I told him that I collect small animals; strays I find in the road because my mom used to bring them home, clean them up and give them to us to adopt into our family. I named the penguin Father Gentoo in honor to Bill. He will ride in my motorcycle bag. Bill told me he blessed it to keep me safe.
I laughed with him and we all took a selfie together, and hugged farewell.
I wondered, walking out, why he made such a mark on me — and maybe this is it: Bill is a guy who lives his passion and believes in what he stands for. As a devout priest, it seems he could have stayed close to home and comfort, and felt he was right in what he knew. Instead, he saw the glory in life and his God his way, and was open to all of it — and set out to understand.
Father Gentoo is in my camera bag until I strap it into the cycle bag and take it on some adventures. Twenty years from now, I will remember Bill’s graciousness, desire to help people and devotion to enjoy and understand more of the world. I think the world has been a better place with him in it.